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ESPN Floats a Netflix-Style Trial Balloon. But It's Not Giving Up the Bundle.

ESPN might sell you soccer on the Web without making you pay for ESPN.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

ESPN has already said it may let you pay for its sports programming on the Web without subscribing to a traditional pay-TV package. Now it is floating the idea of selling some of its stuff directly to consumers, just like Netflix does.

ESPN boss John Skipper says that next year the company may sell a package of Major League Soccer games to Web viewers, who could pay for the games without subscribing to ESPN itself.

That would essentially replace the MLS Live service that the league currently markets to fans on its own, which costs $65 a season and gives subscribers digital access to most of the league’s games.

If ESPN goes through with those plans, it would mark the first time the network has served up sports on an a la carte basis. And if you’re a certain kind of TV-of-the-Future thinker, you can argue that it’s evidence that the bundle that supports the entire TV Industrial Complex is starting to unwind.

But the other way to look at ESPN’s trial balloon — Skipper floated the idea last week at a press event — is that it shows the cable company’s commitment to the cable business model, where pay-TV subscribers pay a lot of money to get all of ESPN’s programming, and all of ESPN’s channels, whether or not they they actually want ESPN.

That’s because ESPN isn’t taking anything out of its bundle — it’s just talking about adding a premium tier for a tiny slice of fans willing to pay extra. ESPN got the MLS digital rights — these are for regular-season, out-of-market games — as part of a larger deal for the stuff it really wants — the rights to show some MLS games to all of its viewers on its core, bundled service.

That way ESPN gets to tell Comcast, Time Warner Cable and all the pay-TV distributors that funnel $6 a subscriber into the network that it’s adding value to their offering, not diluting it.

The deal ESPN struck with Dish Network earlier this year works along the same lines: Yes, ESPN and Disney may let you buy their channels on the Web — but you’re still going to have to buy them as part of a larger bundle, which is going to look a lot like a traditional pay-TV bundle.

You can argue that even these baby steps would have been unimaginable a few years ago, and that’s true. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see ESPN try more direct-to-consumer plays with other niche sports down the line. But it’s going to be a long time before it moves away from the bundle it has used to build itself into a $50 billion company.

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